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Chinua Achebe: Things Fall Apart

Published in 1958, two years before Nigerian independence, this novel had an immediate impact and has gone on to be a classic of Nigerian and African literature, appearing on many lists of great novels and translated into many languages. It is set in an Igbo village, at the end of the nineteenth century/beginning of the twentieth century, just before and during British expansion into what is now Nigeria. It was initially intended to tell the story of three men over three generations but this book focuses on Okonkwo. Obi Okonkwo’s story will appear in his next book, No Longer at Ease, while the third character, Nwoye, has yet to have his book.

Achebe has said that he wanted to write about his people and he talked to many older people to get the authentic feel of the village. The story is of Okonkwo, his rise and his fall, but it also mirrors the fate of the Igbo people. Although his father was a coward and a debtor, Okonkwo has made something of himself by hard work. He has three wives, is a successful farmer, respected among his people and a strong man. At the start of the novel, everything is working for him, thanks to his chi which is roughly – very roughly – akin to the Western idea of the spirit or, if you will, a personal god. The village has obtained a boy from another village – Ikemefuna – and Okonkwo agrees to look after him, particularly as he acts as a good role model for Okonkwo’s son, Nwoye. However, the Oracle says that Ikemefuna must be killed but Okonkwo cannot do it as the boy looks to him as a father. When the tribesmen attack Ikemefuna, Okonkwo, not wanting to look weak, kills him despite the warning of the Oracle.

The elder who had told Okonkwo about the Oracle dies. At the funeral the men fire their guns but Okonkwo’s explodes and kills the elder’s son. As a result he is banished for seven years but goes to live with his kinsmen. Meanwhile the British are encroaching and there are clashes. We see, through Okonkwo’s eyes, the arrival of the church and the forces of law and order. When Okonkwo returns to Umuofia, things go wrong. A church is burned in reprisal for the killing of a sacred python. The elders are tricked into coming to discuss the matter with the district officer but are put into jail. For Okonkwo, fighting is the only solution but when he kills a government messenger he realises that he stands alone and hangs himself.

While, of course, there is no doubt which side Achebe is on, he does not give us an idealised portrait of the Igbo community. They are shown warts and all. Nevertheless, this is a story from the colonised’s point of view. The British are never seen in a good light, whether it is the district officer or the church. But, of course, the British win in the end with Achebe left giving us a portrait of a society now disappeared.

Publishing history

First published 1958 by Heinemann